BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a special report today on the bravery and dedication of U.S. and other humanitarian aid workers in Iraq. Because of attacks on foreigners, the UN, the Red Cross, Oxfam, and now Care International have pulled out their western staffs, but others remain, risking their lives to help the needy. Their work is difficult not only because of the violence but because many Iraqis are suspicious of them, wondering whether aid workers are really occupiers. Our story is from Kate Seelye of National Public Radio.
KATE SEELYE: In a village in southeastern Iraq, a herd of sheep is delivered to an Iraqi war widow.
They are part of an income-generating project sponsored by the Oregon-headquartered Mercy Corps. A non-faith based humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps sponsors relief and development programs worldwide.
CASSANDRA NELSON: Tell her they’ll be her sheep and her responsibility.
SEELYE: Mercy Corps has been based in the town of Kut, two hours south of Baghdad, since the end of the war. In response to local demands, it is sponsoring a variety of projects — replacing damaged water and sewage pipes, rehabilitating water treatment plants, and reconstructing schools. Aid worker Cassandra Nelson says Mercy Corps is providing invaluable services to a long neglected part of Iraq. But working here, she says, is not without risk.
NELSON (Aid Worker, Mercy Corps): Even if we are in a safer area than others, there are still explosions and gunshots. It happens around us on a fairly regular basis.
SEELYE: Working in conflict zones is an inherently risky business. But in Iraq these days, NGOs are increasingly under fire because of who they are and the work they do. Those responsible for attacks are said to be supporters of the former regime, foreign fighters, and even disgruntled local residents. Some believe the attacks, like the one on the Red Cross, are intended to undermine efforts to stabilize the country.
Caught in the midst of a controversial occupation in which they have been targeted, aid agencies here are asking themselves some tough questions. Should they stay or should they go? At what point does the risk they run outweigh the value of the work they do?
Mercy Corps has chosen to keep its 25 international staff in place. Most of its programs are in a relatively stable part of the country. But the agency did face initial public mistrust. Aid workers say several grenades were thrown at their homes. But after reaching out to local officials and religious leaders, tensions were resolved, says aid worker Michael Cooper. And the agency feels increasingly accepted by the community.
MICHAEL COOPER (Aid Worker, Mercy Corps):As long as we feel confident that they need the assistance and are welcoming the assistance, we’ll stay. And how do we do that? It’s a matter of going out and interacting with the community, of not having armed guards and barbed wire and that sort of thing; it’s going to the weddings, it’s going to the hospital when your guard has a new baby and you want to celebrate that moment with them.
SEELYE: The organization feels secure enough to maintain a highly visible presence. Its cars and offices are clearly marked. But Cooper admits that even total community acceptance may not guarantee security.
Mr. COOPER: I feel comfortable to go downtown to shop for bread, to get a haircut, to shop for a sweater. I don’t feel threatened. Of course, in the back of my mind I think, “Gee, someone could walk right up to me and put a bullet in my head.” I don’t know why I take that risk. I guess it’s because I think the work we’re doing is really worth it.
SEELYE: In Baghdad, aid agencies say fear of attack is even greater. In response, most have employed armed guards. All are keeping a low profile.
At this youth center run by Norwegian Church Aid, there are no flags, signs, or logos. NCA offices are also unidentified. Country representative Tore Winsvold says that he and his staff have been disturbed by the wave of attacks, but the NCA is committed to staying.
TORE WINSVOLD (Norwegian Church Aid): I think being a serious aid organization, that is the way you have to think, otherwise you have no mission.
SEELYE: But an additional challenge, he says, is one faced by all agencies in Iraq — the need to distinguish themselves from the coalition forces.
Mr. WINSVOLD: I think you can only show it in practice. You should not be seen together with soldiers. We never socialize with the forces, never, and we try to avoid them.
SEELYE: He says that because few aid agencies were allowed to operate under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis do not know what they are. So many assume that NGOs are linked to the occupation forces. And this translates into deep suspicion.
DAVID PANKRATZ (NGO Coordination Committee): As a group they don’t quite believe that we would be here just to help them, just as they don’t believe that George Bush sent 150,000 soldiers here just to get rid of Saddam Hussein for them.
SEELYE: Nor does it help, adds Pankratz, that coalition forces further blur the line by ascribing humanitarian objectives to their mission. And that can affect the way aid agencies are viewed.
Mr. PANKRATZ: We end up as humanitarian organizations being agents of a government, agents of a particular project, and we lose an essential element of who we are, which is neutral actors. And that’s a big concern I have, because if that spreads around the world that will have a major impact on how welcome foreign aid agencies are going to be.
SEELYE: And Iraq needs all the aid it can get. After several wars and more than a decade of sanctions, infrastructure is severely degraded. Sewage fills city streets; buildings, roads, and power lines are damaged; and rubbish litters the landscape. The health care sector has been especially hard hit. At this Iraqi Red Crescent hospital in Baghdad, a patient undergoes a caesarean section. Dr. Swad el-Farraj says he’s forced to work with severely outdated equipment.
Dr. SWAD EL-FARRAJ: I need everything.
SEELYE: He says this hospital was due to benefit from Red Cross plans to refurbish clinics and hospitals. But with the closing of the Red Cross offices in Baghdad, that project is one of many that have been suspended.
Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Saffar says the absence of major players such as the Red Cross is slowing Iraq’s redevelopment.
AMMAR AL-SAFFAR (Deputy Health Minister, Iraq): We are trying to convince the NGOs and the UN and its bodies that Iraq is secure and Iraq is safe. We really need those friends to come back to Iraq and not to be held as hostages of these terrorists.
SEELYE: Though many foreign aid workers have left, thousands of local employees are carrying on much of their work. At the Amal Association, an Iraqi NGO, an aid worker prepares medicine kits for distribution to mobile clinics.
Director Hanaa Edward says Iraqis can and should shoulder responsibility for the redevelopment of their own country. She points to the role Iraqi Kurds played in the reconstruction of northern Iraq after the first Gulf War.
HANAA EDWARD (Director, Amal Association): We have lived the same situation in Kurdistan, but we have overcome this situation. It needs patience and it needs the participation of the people on rebuilding their new lives; not to be passive but to be active, and this is important.
SEELYE: Until then, groups like Mercy Corps will continue to run the risks involved in providing humanitarian aid in today’s Iraq. Aid that, like this income-generating program, provides Iraqis like Faliha Shabib with the hope of building a better life.
FALIHA SHABIB: Yes anything from God will help increase my income, we need so much.
SEELYE: For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Kate Seelye in Baghdad.